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Masquerading as a political horror flick, "Us" is really a steady stream of cultural references thriller with a twist clever enough to get folks all riled up. Much like the the Coen brothers, and Quentin Tarantino, Jordan Peele is obsessed with littering his grand canvas with a bunny farm of Easter Eggs.
The internet is going crazy tracking down everything from obscure VHS covers, to Biblical passages, to this Michael Jackson fella. It's all a bit much really, distracting from what should be a seat-gripping theatre experience. Pilfering an old Twillight Zone episode about an evil doppelganger, "Us" takes a brilliant premise and clutters it with needless tidbits. This of course means box office gold, as repeated viewings are necessary to grasp everything needed for proper dissection. Shame that.
"Us" looks great, revs nicely to a boffo climax, and features some brilliantly complex performances from its leads. Lupita Nyong'o is especially fantastic. But as with all great horror films, there needs to be a suspension of common sense to really dig this movie. If there's time to ponder on the plausibility of what is happening on screen, then the whole thing falls apart. "Us" comes close, but short (where the hell are the guns?).
Still, there's enough fodder here (privilege, race, America, revenge, soul, cults) for much heated discussion, and Jordan Peele proves he's not a one trick pony director, but a horse that needs to be reigned in a little.
The Party's Just Beginning (2018)
Chastising small town Scottish life to indifferent yet surly pubsters more interested in their drink than this open mic looney, Liusaidh delivers her trash talk with poetic vigour before stumbling out for her nightly shag and take away.
As Liusaidh, (Lucy or Loosey) Karen Gillan owns the screen, as she trudges through her insufferable existence, something her best friend decided against a year's past. Her nightly drink/shag/fries concludes with a stagger over the train bridge favoured by local jumpers, and visions of her dear departed, departing. This unsettling tragedy of events soon becomes mundane with repetition, as is everything in the unfortunate ville of Inverness.
Staring into deep dead space from the local deli counter, under harsh fluorescents and a tight hairnet, she encounters a new bloke interested in more than just processed meats, and we are off. "The Party's Just Beginning" doesn't follow the paint by numbers movie canvass, instead delivering a choppy story in jumpy time slices, with equal doses of edgy humour and dark pathos. Attention must be paid.
Although there are glimmers of hope, the film, like it's perpetually grey, dead end town, has trouble finding a rainbow among the clouds, and that may be the point.
This one, for better or worse, or both, stays with you.
Green Book (2018)
DRIVING DR. SHIRLEY
Up against racially charged cinematic explosions at the Oscars, "The Green Book" took home the grand prize, and made Spike Lee attempt to flee the premises. The polarizing win makes for healthy debate and curiosity seekers should check this film out.
This role reversal, buddy-buddy shtick flows mighty thick, but it actually happened. A good natured Italian thug is hired to drive a prim and proper black musician on a tour of the South. In 1962. Yup. A big-hearted, big-stomached Viggo Mortensen stumbles perfectly through his inevitable transformation from racist simpleton to enlightened simpleton, while Mahershala Ali's hard shell eventually softens enough to join in the Merry Christmassy ending.
The cookie cutter script is baked just right, but anyone hoping for an edgier take on America's race relations best look elsewhere. Where "The Green Book" shines is in the background details - the sets, the cars, the hotels, Little Richard on the radio. This is 1962 America.
It may not have been the game changer folks craved to see groping golden statuettes on Oscar's night, but Mortensen and Ali made it come to life, and that's why the "The Green Book" succeeds.
Cold Pursuit (2019)
Spoiler alert: Liam Neeson kills a bunch of bad dudes.
The twist? Tis a wintery film this, with bevy of ingenious end of life moments ranging from snow ploughs, to road signs, to glorious pine trees. Comedy noir anyone? "Cold Pursuit" adds that perfect blend of tangy spice to what could have been another paint by numbers revenge caper, giving perfectly cast, stone cold Liam Neeson enough comedic angles to dupe sympathy for a mechanical vigilante.
Though several interesting subplots are buried deep in the snowbanks, "Cold Pursuit" succeeds in that Coen Brothers style of delivering equal doses of terror and yuks, often simultaneously.
Highly recommended, or at least it would be, if this hadn't already been done before, and better, by the same director no less ("In Order of Disappearance"), but with the caveat of distracting subtitles. Choices choices.
The Hummingbird Project (2018)
When a financial IT hustler in the midst of his greatest gamble is presented with a death sentence, he decides to dig a deeper hole.
Twitchy, wide-eyed Jesse Eisenberg is perfect as the edgy and on the edge Vincent, putting out a series of unfortunate fires in his bizarre quest to drill a straight fibre cable pipe from Kansas to New Jersey. Better is balding nerd, hunch-backed, awkward code crunching cousin Anton, played by unrecognizable Alexander Skarsgard in equal doses of clown tear sadness, and physical slapstick. Their escape from and battle with Cruella Devillish Salma Hayek (strong boss Eva), stirs the plot pot.
"The Hummingbird Project" is an exercise in determined futility, as a couple of misguided geniuses in search of life-altering, get rich quick adventure, get in way over their heads as their world spirals out of control. And though the film veers off common sense tracks, there's no denying it's power to cajole viewers along for the crazy ride.
Le grand bain (2018)
THE POOL MONTY
Mid-life crisis misfits saddled with various issues, strap on speedos to rock the world of, a-hem, synchronized swimming!
Ah, the French.
Overflowing with big name Franco actors, "Sink or Swim" is a box office sensation overseas, and has Cannes and Caesars nods to boot. Tis a land after all, which confuses Jerry Lewis with Orson Welles.
Yes the acting is fine, and there are enough bits and pieces of cinematic charm, but much of this film is way too syrupy, easily predictable, if not down right frustrating. The backstories are too many - some are hambone ridiculous, others are dramatically cold - and most are not flushed out properly.
The inevitable transition from frogs to princes is hardly believable, and frankly, anticlimactic. You know there's a feel goody, splashy ending coming, which kinda defeats the purpose of spending a couple of hours with these flabby gents, and proves to be quite the shallow end.
52 Words for Love (2018)
THE L WORD
More of a research project than a movie, "52 Words for Love" asks questions about the unanswerable: what is love?
By offering up a weekly synonym for love on her social network, Alice opens a can of complicated worms. Candid interviews reveal the wide scope of the love definition, and how it drives everyone on a daily basis. Quite timely this, as set in stone relationship standards have been obliterated in recent times. Pretty much everything is on and off the table. And men, who not so long ago were awkwardly, if not staunchly mum on the subject, are suddenly in on the discussion. This is all about relationships, how they develop, how they succeed, how they fail, how they flounder, how they grow, and how everyone involved, when prodded, sees their own unique dance.
In the end, nothing is really answered, but that was a given, other than that love is a personal, often ethereal thing, and deserves ongoing dissection.
"Arctic" starts with a cold opening, and the temperature drops from there. With no back story, no flashbacks, no explanation, no thundering voice over, no leading series of events, we are plunked into the middle of an Arctic solo survival adventure. Tis a simple synopsis, that is revealed in sparse, undramatic bits and bites: an airplane carcass, a set of fishing lines, a crank radio, a well-worn dirty parka, a stoic and silent lead.
Danish actor for all seasons and master of one (spoiler alert: winter), Mads Mikkelsen is this movie. He absolutely owns it. Well, his grim, wind-battered face does. With a dearth of dialogue, and only the monotonous grind of survival in a harsh desert expanse, "Arctic" moves at a glacial pace, slowly gathering momentum in what turns out to be a gripping thriller. Man versus nature, where nature is an unrelenting bully.
In what could have been a typical Hollywoody film scenario, "Arctic" achieves that rarified of cinematic accomplishments: a riveting, uncompromising tale of action and reaction, with meticulous, tedious pacing that feels chillingly real.
As blunt as everything seems, there is an underlying, unspoken inner conflict of a man perfectly capable of standing alone, suddenly nudged off his perch to venture into life changing, and possibly ending, decisions.
A polarizing film for sure, but those patient enough will be warmly rewarded.
GOOD COP DRUNK COP
Nicole Kidman is astonishing, and unrecognizable. A hard life's worth of eye baggage, desert cracked lips, permanent bed hair, and a staggering hangover gait, detective (barely) Erin Bell, formerly an undercover cop, is still smothered under those heavy, heavy covers.
She's a mess. A cold, lifeless mess. And she owns the screen.
A recent murder presses the rewind button on a series of unfortunate events, in which we get to see a young, ravishing Kidman, some horrific decisions, and eventually, after some puzzling but engrossing flashbacks, a final resolution.
And though the clever story does eventually come together, it is a tad disappointing. This film is more about Kidman's powerfully understated and totally haunting performance. Her broken body barely able to carry any weight, fueled by what's left of her mind: a hazy cloud of regret, struggling to find some sort of redemption. Some sort of closure. Some ... thing.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
A spandex strongman pulls a car with his teeth.
A dude seduces his date with a naked martial arts demonstration.
A guy gets shot out of a canon, cartoon style.
Fear not, "Roma" is not a surrealist comedy about silly male behaviour. It's better.
After "Gravity" defying Hollywood, Alfonso Cuaron delivers an astonishingly moving ode to his youth, carefully stalking a family with a widescreen, smoky black and white lens. Endurance testing long, lava fluid, trance inducing, intoxicatingly delicious, cardiac arresting, "Roma" is the year's best movie. And it's not even close.
The anti-Hollywood action flick we all so desperately needed, Cuaron's masterpiece plays as a distant, voyeuristic, peek at complicated family strife in astonishingly realized 1970 Mexico. It's all moving photographs, long, panning, beautiful takes of life's ugliness, revolving around the generous glow of beloved maid Cleo. Yalitza Aparicio is an understated wonder in the lead, evoking a spectrum of summer sun warmth to horrific tragedy, with a minimum of dialogue. Simply fabulous. And fabulously simple.
At well over the dreaded two hour mark, "Roma" will test some impatient movie fuss-budgets, but once the spell takes hold, this movie won't let go. Cuaron tackles some hefty subjects - class, sex, political and relationship struggle - in a deftly subtle, background delivery. Watch locally, think globally.
If there's no big ass theatre around, project this stunning Netflix beauty on a wall for the full experience.
With horror master Eli Roth stuffing the director's chair, there should be a foreboding dread throughout this totally innocent family fare. But it never develops. Which is quite the surprise. And that is good.
Witches and warlocks and haunted houses: the fantasy film marks are checked. A pre-teen orphaned misfit thrust into a magical kingdom battle of good versus evil in post war America, is on the menu here. And though it does slip into sappy territory, the movie with the long name works in that old fashioned Disney way.
The characters are over the top colourful. The sets are meticulously complex. The plot bounces along at a steady pace. And most importantly, Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are superbly snippy as adults in charge of our young hero. In spite of some silly CGI moments, like attacking jack-o'-lanterns, "The House With a Clock in It's Walls" works because of the strutting leads, obviously enjoying the freedom to have some fun on set.
Not great, but not bad.
IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER
Bill Murray is the Banksy of public performance art. He's a warm, wonderful oddball who just might crash your next event, however small, or insignificant, and instead of dominating the room from a celebrity perch, he just blends in. These life bombs of wedding pictures, kickball games and karaoke bars, are now the stuff of urban legend. Though with digital proof, they are just legend.
Why a Hollywood hotshot would chose to mingle with his audience, sometimes for hours, is the question documentarian Tommy Avallone tries to answer in this rather fine film. We see the famous grainy footage: Bill tending bar, Bill washing dishes at a party, Bill treating a stranger to World Series tickets, and we meet the giddy recipients of these pop-up moments.
As theories are bandied about, it becomes clear that there is something transcendently magical about these experiences, for everyone involved. Less about giving, and more about sharing, Murray's connections are real, unscripted, joyous.
Tommy spends the whole of the movie tracking down the elusive movie star, culminating in an encounter which plays true to the spirit that Murray has cultivated.
Quite a lot of fun.
Les frères Sisters (2018)
John C. Reilly's giddy reaction to a flushing toilet, or his clumsy introduction to teeth brushing, are but a few of the little gems sprinkled throughout this Gold Rush western. Not technically a comedy, "The Sisters Brothers" has just enough tiny smile inducers mixed in with a languid pace and stark violence to rank among the best westerns of recent yore.
With Joaquin Phoenix, Riz Ahmed (both very good) and Jake Gyllenhall (excellent as a proper dandy with flowery language), we have an odd buddy-buddy vs. buddy-buddy road movie. Jacques Audiard directs directly from the Coen Brothers school of clever period pieces, starting the show with an after dark, distant gun battle, that's as mysterious as it is beautiful.
The line between good and bad guys is in flux, but Audiard knows how to elicit sympathy towards the Brothers, even as the ruthless hit men set about their messy business. "The Sisters Brothers" is a beautifully shot epic, with some charming performances, an intriguing Gold Rush plot line, and a sensitive dip into the complicated brotherly pool.
Never mind the wardrobe malfunction, there's the The Super Bowl finger!
In a world where most pop stars' dabbling in politics is of a perfunctory, often naive nature, there exists a few explosive artists who really are game changers. Unfortunately, many are often disregarded as self-serving alarmists.
As a Sri-Lankan refugee, the transplanted Brit M.I.A has been tireless in fighting for the Tamil people seeking independence back in her homeland. With a father who co-founded the revolutionary Tamil Tiger movement, her's is more than just a privileged outsider connection.
Mixing pop and politics is also what this jumpy documentary is all about. Before music became her weapon (both intellectually and on the dance floor), video was M.I.A.'s vocation, and this film takes full advantage of a lifelong grainy footage trove to tell the complex story. The results are a mixed bag, but effectively show the growth of a spirited, young radical into world famous persona, with many of her victories, and missteps along the way. It's an engrossing doc, and must viewing for anyone wanting a well rounded look into what M.I.A., and her passionate struggle is all about. At the very least, it'll increase the Google activity on a much overlooked part of the world.
My Generation (2017)
Turns out the crumbling of crusty upper class Britain was engineered by a bunch of long haired art hooligans who made dreary old London swing with a rainbow of colours. And who better to flashback to the mid-sixties than Michael Caine?
Don't answer that, just see the movie.
With a bevy of jovial (off screen) interviews, Caine reminisces revolution with old pals McCartney, Daltrey, Twiggy and Marianne. The stories are great, and we are treated to some primo era footage, but it all rests on Caine's ample shoulders. As a Cockney in a princely movie industry, he helped usher in the working class bloke as a screen presence. A significant moment, aligned with the rock and roll explosion, contemporary art and fashion waves, it signalled a way out of the stodgy career paths previously devoid of any detours.
More of a history lesson than exploitation flick, a classy bit of cinema this.
To tell a tall tale, the Italians speak loudly, with much exaggeration, and accompany themselves eagerly with fast moving hands. Subtlety is not on the menu.
A rather wild and wooly story, "Tulipani" is told from several points in time, which proves a tad confusing at first, but soon enough, once the audience is priorly strapped in, congeals into a starchy, pasta water whole. We start in Canada, travel back to Holland, but everything really happens in a small Italian town. Locales and languages shift on a slippery dime, which adds to the fun craziness of this engrossing fairy tale of true romance.
Gauke, a stoic, heroic Dutch man's man winds up bringing much more than just tulips to a folksy village in desperate need of saving. The loopy plot unfolds from the very colourful memory of the local tavern owner, which takes it into a foggy, grey area. Who knows how things actually went down, but it sure is fun when guided by an old fashioned, wide-eyed story teller.
Over the top? Entertaining? Whimsical? Cliched? Silly? Big-hearted? Unbelievable? You betcha.
It's something to see alright: the unbridled thespian explosion of Hollywood's unclosetted weirdo: Nicolas Cage.
Not to be confused with the sleepy seventies couch rock anthem by Barry Manilow, "Mandy" is in fact, a volcanic revenge movie bathed in various hues of blood. After being done wrong, Cage rages a one man war against a bizarre satanic sect. That's the plot. No need for anything else. It's all Cage, all the time. And it is glorious.
Sometimes it's best to keep things simple, and that, this is. We all know what's coming, and it's coming like a red hot locomotive careening off the tracks, crazy eyes bulging, teeth grinding to powder, heavy metal music melting, primal screams a howling. This may be Cage's greatest achievement since he left Las Vegas, in an over the top, b-movie, trippy, one dimensional, kinda way.
Nic is back, and everyone best stay clear.
PIMP MY RIDE
So apparently there was a steady line of randy Hollywoodsters taking advantage of a hedonistic drive-thru emporium at the local gas station. Wow. An effervescent and constantly smiling nonagenarian hustler Scotty Bowers says so. And the facts do too.
The sheer number of A-list stars and starlets named, and their varied sexual preferences sounds shocking even by today's unshockable standards. But when presented so matter-of-factly, and with such fondness by the charismatic Scotty Bowers, it all seems perfectly alright.
Seems there was more to the post war than just a baby boom. Waiting to protect their secrets, Scotty finally published his racy memoirs after his customers had passed, and now much of it is documented in this film. When asked if outing someone posthumously is kosher, Scotty asks, "what's wrong with being gay, baby?" Indeed.
Besides an endless stream of tabloid fodder tales, this documentary focuses on a very complex character. Someone whose free formed attitude towards sex is at both times bewildering and very refreshing, has a crackerjack memory and lust for life as he approaches the century mark, but also shows hints of hidden sadness. Scotty is a complicated man, who has lived a wild life, made many people very happy, but seems to be missing something. Baby.
IT'S STILL ALIVE
A lifelong (anti) Hollywood hustler, Larry Cohen relishes recounting some of the fabulous tales that make up his subversive career. And what a career!
As a prolific writer, Cohen penned scripts for numerous television (remember television?) shows in the sixties (The Fugitive!), and soon the big screen bug bit, and Larry succumbed. Perturbed at losing creative control to others, Cohen began a string of independent films with a gonzo attitude and a very tight wallet, berthing such B-movie classics like "Bone" (aka: "Dial Rat for Terror"), "Q: The Winged Serpent" and "It's Alive". Even though those movies are quite, uh, unique, there's no denying the spirit of their cinematic father.
Cohen often worked directly on location, with no permits, using the unsuspecting public during his guerilla shoots, adding a decidedly unpredictability wow factor to many of his wildly uneven films.
"King Cohen" takes a fanboyish documentary peek at one of Hollywood's true, overlooked treasures. Glowing accounts from bigwigs like Martin Scorsese and J.J. Abrams, are interspersed with fond filming recollections from actors Michael Moriarty and Fred Williamson, but most importantly is Larry himself, who remains a crackerjack trove of crazy ideas. Well worth the watch.
We the Animals (2018)
BOYS WILL BE MEN
Jonah is nine, he is wild, but most importantly, he is wild-eyed. One third of a brother blur, he romps through a frenetic life of unleashed youth in a carefree universe, documenting his dreams in a secret art journal.
Sounds idyllic, but It is all bittersweet. Ugly family strife turns their meagre but manageable world upside down, and how the brothers deal with their sudden ordeal shapes the movie. Filmed with a colourful lens, whether soaking in the backwoods greens, or the purple hue of a fat lip, "We The Animals" doesn't shy away from unsettling topics, but also lingers on simple beauty.
As a first timer on the big screen, Evan Rosado absolutely owns his complex morphing role of discovery. Still just a poor kid who plays in the dirt, draws a fantasy world, lives in the moment, Jonah's life is moving fast and unfortunately, there's growing up to do.
Poor Boy (2016)
This is a dirty movie, well, dusty may be more appropriate. Brothers Samson and Romeo are introduced trying unsuccessfully to sell back a lawnmower they just stole from an ex. The cops have more trouble trying to hold back the pipe wielding woman than making what should be a routine arrest. This is the arid South, where everyone is scrambling for something, and most folks are dirty.
Our small time hoods have small time dreams, but even those they can't seem to get right. Subsisting in a desert trailer, the duo scheme and scam their days away in hopes of some far fetched pay day, which will take then to California. There's a bit of Grapes of Wrath tumbleweeding through this jerky plot line, capturing present day down and outs and the choking bleakness of their existence.
"Poor Boy" does little justice to several juicy characters in favour of the brothers connection, but that is where the film ultimately succeeds: with the unflinching bond only blood can provide. Lou Taylor Pucci and his strokeable beard is fabulous as the domineering yet utterly misguided big brother, to Dov Tiefenbach's silent but tenaciously game sibling.
It's a gloriously character study and not much more. But sometimes that's all ya need.
Eighth Grade (2018)
Gucci, Kayla's YouTube signature sign off means "it's all good". Which it's not. How can it be? Kayla (the terrific Elsie Fisher) is thirteen and plowing through early teen traumas that don't exist in any other world. She is riddled with acne, an awkwardly changing body, a hovering dad, social media pressures, and a debilitating shyness. Loneliness is universal, but the middle school version can be devastatingly paralysing.
Scripted and directed by Bo Burnham, "Eighth Grade" is not the comedy expected from such a manic source. Oh there's plenty of laughs, but most are of the painful variety, some of the relief variety, and only a few of the generic funny variety. This is a very serious movie, even if it is only seems so from Kayla's point of view. Mundane life bumps are Mount Everest climbs, full of horrific, tension-filled drama punctuated with explosive electronic music blasts. A pool party? Holy crap! Message received, loud and clear.
In spite of obvious cinematic techniques carefully orchestrated to lure a willing audience, this movie really triumphs with a striking realism as we get inside Kayla's realistically uncomfortable skin. Like "Boyhood", it sharply captures defining life moments with an ugly-beauty reverence all too rare for Hollywood.
The best thing you'll see in quite a while.
Deadpool 2 (2018)
Two hours of trash talkin' the Marvel Universe makes for irresistible cinema. The bloated comic book film industry deserves the potty-mouthed, anti-hero attack that only Deadpool can deliver. And yes, tis a hard act to follow after the hilarious shock treatment of the original, but lo and behold, there's enough fresh funny for a sweet sequel.
As our leading disfigured man, Ryan Reynolds riffs profanity puns at machine gun fire pace, wooing the audience by repeatedly smashing the fourth wall. A crowded cast of secondary characters pop up, but it is on Deadpool that this vehicle depends. And he delivers.
Not as great as the original, but then what could be? #2 is still irresistible eye candy for Marvel fans, and casual thrill seekers in search of something fresh.
This is not grand movie making, various plot lines exist solely for the punch lines, but who can complain when they are this good? Even the sappy romance angle is a clever ploy to reference the 1985 boffo video hit "Take On Me". A-ha!
American Animals (2018)
THE BOOK THIEVES
True story this, though the quartet of perpetrators of the most audacious literary crime have trouble keeping their story straight. That's part of the fun in recreating a 2004 Kentucky teenage heist: having the now grown ups involved, recount the events, separated by distance from each other, and time from the deed.
"American Animals" seems too goofy for fact, but as usual, fiction loses out in the strange category. Spencer, Warren, Eric and Chas, (yes Chas), are privileged white boys getting their feet wet at University, itching for the action adult life has promised, which of course, is lacking.
Solution: robbery! Seems the campus library has a twelve million dollar book, and the only obstacle is an elderly librarian. Seeing their fair share of heist movies, the greedy group hatch an elaborate plan to snatch a big bird book from the poorly guarded nest. Convoluted schematics are drawn up. Maquettes are constructed. Ridiculous disguises are made. This is the thrill of their lives, and makes for irresistible film.
Evan Peters as the excitable and sketchy Warren, owns his delicious role, especially when steering the reluctant dreamer Spencer (Barry Keoghan) to the point of no return. Even better are their real counterparts, as they contemplate on the events, and each other, fourteens years on. It's an ingenious bit of movie magic, that could not have been scripted better.
Borg McEnroe (2017)
WHAT THE DEUCE?
The supposed gentleman's game, tennis is full of volcanic characters. Competitive singles is an exasperating exercise in strategic warfare: the closest one gets to physical chess. With very little distinguishing the top players in athletic ability, it all comes down cerebral strategy.
Perhaps the ultimate clash of mental racket gods, the 1980 Wimbledon final, is finally depicted in film. Icebergian cool, super Swede Bjorn Borg clashes with the hot-headed, foul-mouthed American brat John McEnroe, in a gruellingly inhumane best of five sets match, on slippery grass, in front of British royalty drowning their strawberries and cream, with sugary tea.
Sports movies are always an iffy proposition, but Borg vs. McEnroe gets it right. Not only is Sverrir Gudnason a dead ringer for Borg, he totally nails his obsessive mannerisms, and most importantly, brings the mystery man to life. Irrational nutbar actor Shia LaBeouf as the irrational nutbar tennis star John McEnroe, is the obvious lure here, but instead the focus is mainly on the secretive, misunderstood Borg.
It's a relief to see excellent action sequences not marred by dodgy stand ins, and awkward editing. Also: retro short shorts and white tennis balls. This is a great tennis movie, and a pretty good movie movie.